Say this for John Edwards and Andrew Young, the author of a chilling new memoir: they deserved each other.
Just when we are all feeling depressed about the malaise of the body politic, along comes a book designed to make us feel worse.
Andrew Young’s account of his decade as John Edwards’s body man, beard, and shit-eating courtier is a mesmerizing insight not only into the rotten nature of his hero but the corruption of the culture that allowed a man as devoid of authenticity as John Edwards to flourish for so long, even to the point of getting a decent shot at the White House.
This is not a political memoir. It’s a morality tale with the chill of Hitchcock.
Young and his hero, Edwards—who spotted his craven acolyte as an enabler even more committed than his wife, Elizabeth—sucked each other into a moral abyss that led eventually to Young’s willingness to pretend he was the father of the child Edwards sired with his mistress Rielle Hunter. A fascinating undercurrent for the reader is wondering at what point Young will eventually turn on his boss. Being made to mop up when the bathroom plumbing breaks down at the Edwards house? Being yelled at if there was no Diet Sprite in the ever-present cooler in the campaign car Young chauffeured the candidate around in? (This was after Edwards’s cosmetic dentist told him that his customary Diet Cokes would stain his newly whitened teeth.) Finding himself the abused go-between charged with handling the candidate’s communications with both an angry wife and a grabby mistress who contacted her lover through a special “Bat phone” of which Young had proud custody?
Servility always curdles into rage in the end. There’s a wonderful moment in the master/lackey relationship when you can see the hint of Young’s inner Iago. Edwards always liked the armrest up in the car when he got in so he could move around in the backseat. Sometime after the 2004 election loss Young began a “quiet exercise in rebellion by making sure the left armrest for his seat was always lowered when he got in… I put it down and smiled to myself whenever an annoyed look flashed across his face before he pushed it up.” Young adds that he “also took silent pleasure in waiting for the moment [Edwards] would demonstrate that he had become truly spoiled rotten by voicing a complaint about this tiny inconvenience.”
• Lloyd Grove: John Edwards’ Sugar MamaWhat a worm. But he’s the worm John Edwards deserved. The truly shaming revelation here is how—except for the hound dogs of the National Enquirer—the press and the political establishment were duped by a candidate who, even before the Rielle Hunter craziness, was a giant phony. It should be collectively blush-making for the press to remember the newsmagazine covers, the fawning TV sitdowns, the op-ed boostings Edwards garnered in the course of his years as a crowd-pleasing, “Kennedyesque” candidate who supposedly cared for the underdog and coined the “Two Americas” catchphrase. It turns out that the cocoon of John Edwards' megalomania was a third America all its own.
Right from his first Senate campaign days, when he turned up at rallies driving himself in someone else’s beat-up Buick even though he had a BMW and Lexus coupe in the garage of his multimillion dollar home, there was virtually no aspect of the Edwards campaign persona that was true. The Armani label cut out of his suits. His desire to flee as soon as he could from any encounter with the “fat rednecks” who reminded him of his own humble beginnings. (Young writes that campaign workers watching the debates during the 2008 race would knock back a drink every time Edwards uttered the words “son of a mill worker.” Soon they were howling drunk and helpless with laughter.)
Young’s wife, Cheri, regarded herself as making a good living as a nurse. Edwards asked her how much she was paid and then offended her by blurting, “Jesus, how the heck do you survive on horrible pay like that?” Edwards certainly wouldn’t know. After the 2004 election loss, he added to his trial-lawyer fortune by getting hired as a door opener by Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that avoided taxes by incorporating offshore accounts. Young and Edwards were equally intoxicated by the access to celebrity and money that politics provides. “It’s hard to overstate the value of having rock star friends,” Young writes, apparently without irony. “I once organized a trip to a Dave Matthews concert, with backstage passes included, to reward a busload of big Edwards donors.” (The senator also had the group meet him at the airport so he could show off his new jet.) “The experience of hanging out with a presidential candidate and musicians who made thousands of fans scream for two hours was enough to persuade one fellow to give $2 million to ‘combat poverty.’” All this attention, this media susceptibility to his easy sound bites, turns Edwards from a spoiled, facile man with broadly good intentions into something darker, something even sinister.
Elizabeth Edwards goes down that slippery path with him, becoming increasingly imperious and caught up in her ambition to be ensconced in the White House as First Lady. She shows the lengths to which her identification with Edwards has gone when she too views her cancer diagnosis as a means of garnering more PR for his campaign. But the way Edwards tortures her as she struggles to cope with her illness and his lies about his mistress is truly unsettling to read about. Elizabeth—already half crazed with her desire to build an assuaging political identity in the wake of the death of their beloved teenage son Wade in 1996—is turned by her gnawing marital uncertainty from a bright, tough-minded political operator into a hissing virago. She leaves bitter messages on the voicemails of campaign workers whom she suspects of colluding with Edwards in deceiving her. She locks herself in a viewing room all day, frantically going through the videos Rielle Hunter shot at the Edwards’s home, looking for evidence that will prove what she fears. (Hunter did indeed spend at least one evening hanging out with John and their kids and then slept with John in the marital bed.)
It would be nice to think that meeting this ditzy predator is a fitting comeuppance for Edwards. Hunter’s manipulation of his vanity is so deft that she lures him, like some bleached blonde Circe, to his inevitable doom. But Edwards’s narcissism by then is destroying everyone around him—the betrayed Young family, the distraught Elizabeth, the campaign workers who had invested all their hopes in his “poverty campaign.” When the daughter of Hunter and Edwards is born, Young suggests that he send Rielle flowers. “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” He pauses. “But don’t sign it from me. Someone might see it.”
This is not a political memoir. It’s a morality tale with the chill of Hitchcock. It’ll make a hell of a movie, but I’m not sure I can bear to see it.
Tina Brown is the founder and editor in chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown .